Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Theater in Ashland, 2: Henry IV; questions of taste

Ashland, Oregon—
THE REPERTORY HERE leans heavily to Shakespeare: after all, this is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Every year we see at least three, sometimes five of his plays; if you return year after year, as we do, you'll see the entire cycle of history plays, presented not in order of their writing but in chronological order of their subjects.

And while the Comedies, "Problem" plays, and Tragedies are often presented in one or another of the indoor theaters, the Histories seem nearly always to be presented in the semi-outdoors theater built in homage to London's (and Shakespeare's) Globe Theater. Last night, then, we sat in the chill of night to watch Henry IV, Part One. Perhaps it was simply an off night, but the performance seemed to me inert, with only Kevin Kenerly's portrayal of Hotspur redeeming a production that veered between overly fussy (but often funny) scenes with Falstaff (David Kelly, effective) and pageant-like, unconvincing scenes with the rebels and the royalty.

Six of us had been discussing another play, Lynn Nottage's Ruined — two other couples had just seen it, and we'd seen it almost six months ago — and we'd agreed that while strong and well done in every way the play ultimately left us depressed and uninvolved: the human condition can be terrible, humans do horrible things to one another, but what's to be done about it? This Henry IV left me similarly uninvolved, though not sad or depressed. Young Prince Hal's sudden reversal of character wasn't persuasive; the Scottish and Welsh rebels seemed merely loutish; King Henry kept reminding me of a playing card. I have to note Judith-Marie Bergan's vivacious account of Mistress Quickly; her opening scene was marvelous. Otherwise, not an impressive account of a pivotal Shakespeare history.
I MENTIONED ABOVE our discussion of Ruined. This of course is one of the major pleasures of our annual week in Ashland with three other couples: conversations about agreement and disagreement of tastes. Eight of us sometimes seem to see eight different productions, all at the same time in the same theater. (Well, seven: one of us — and it ain't me — is rarely expressive of his views, unless directly asked.)

And it's not only the theater that brings out these interesting differences of taste: there's the daily discussion of Where To Eat. This town's not particularly an Eating Town; there are to my mind only two good restaurants — though one of those, New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro, is world-class, as all of us seem to agree. Lindsey says that Ashland's restaurants have a captive clientele, so don't need to excel at their metier; perhaps she's right.

But among the available restaurants, as among the available theater, there's more than enough difference to provoke discussion, agreement, reservation, diffidence, disagreement. We're similar people, we eight; educated, well read, liberal, professional, experienced travelers. But apparently we come to our daily negotiations with daily decisions with different sets of experience-and-enthusiasms, and the result is different, um, postures toward arriving at those decisions — or, in the case of discussions of theater seen, conclusions.

Example: the stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice directed here by Libby Appel, which we saw and absolutely enjoyed last March, was roundly condemned by the other three couples in our house as long and talky. It's a novel, not a play, G. points out. But one of the things that intrigued and pleased me the most about that evening was the success of the adaptation, and the fidelity of its dialogue to Austen's book.

Perhaps the primary consideration in discussions of taste is engagement, the extent to which we're involved in a two-way relationship with the play we're seeing, the meal we're eating, the conversation we're joining, the decision we're approaching. God knows it can be difficult when eight individuals, equally strong-willed but variably willing to express those wills, negotiate toward a common activity. This seems to me to be precisely the subject of Austen's novel: pride and prejudice as motivating, expressing, ultimately confounding the successful outcome of negotiations between individual desires (or urges) and social context (or permission or repression).

One of us mentioned John Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus earlier today. It represents a genre that must be somewhere in mind in all eight of us, though it hasn't been discussed directly (yet): the thrown-together-by-fate group of (usually) travelers whose differences somehow have to be dealt with in a moment of social crisis extremis. The only Ashland productions of this genre that come to mind just now are William Inge's Bus Stop, which we saw in 2006 (and in Glendale in 2002, I think), and Robert Sherwood's comedy Idiot's Delight, which most of us saw back in 2002.

(The classic representation of the genre in literature was for a long time Thornton Wilder's 1927 The Bridge of San Luis Rey, memorably parodied by Marc Brandel's 1945 novel Rain Before Seven, which I re-read every couple of years for decades and must take up again one of these days).

But I've been distracted: sorry. The subject was only one aspect of the transactions among strong individuals thrown together in social moments: taste, and what it is in our experiences that determines taste, or expresses itself as personal taste. Taste especially as it contributes to what we used to call discrimination, before that noun became inextricably (and wrongly) connected to "racial". (Discrimination has to do with specific choices, not categorical ones.) It's a matter for individual contemplation and social conversation, I think; and to the extent that it is missing as a subject, such contemplation and conversation is impoverished.

To be continued, I'm sure…


Curtis Faville said...

The perspicacious mind discriminates.

The narrow mind distinguishes according to categories.

Experience--raw experience--isn't categorical, though the mind keeps a complex filing system ready at all times to confirm the gestalt of familiarity. Without this, we'd be infantile forever. But intellectual maturity allows us to know--to be self-consciously aware--of how this set of predispositions works.

People unable to discriminate between categorites--as in shades of grey meaning--tend to oversimplify reality. Really naive people tend to insist too much upon a few handy categories. Politically, it helps not to think too categorically.

Aesthetically, I think an inquiring mind is the best guide. Curiosity, rather than a desire to divide and conquer, is best.

Charles Shere said...

The perspicacious mind discriminates.
The narrow, lazy, less productive mind,
Content with categories, should it find
Itself in one of its rare thoughtful states
Shuts quick as possible, lest it go blind,
The shutter on experience. It hates
The perspicacious mind, which it knows waits
To take the measure of things left behind.

Unable to discern the shades of grey,
Impatient minds, blind in the light of day,
Shun contemplation, which eliminates
(If not completely) erosion, decay,
Confusion among all events in play.
The perspicacious mind discriminates.